The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle. New York: Roc, 1968.
Summary: A quest in which the last unicorn embarks on a quest to find her lost kin, eventually join by Schmendrick the Magician, and Molly Grue, a quest involving a confrontation with the Red Bull, and a grim king.
I was never much for unicorns, but then read a recommendation of this book. Peter Beagle takes us on a classic quest that introduced me to unicorn lore, and transformed a second-rate magician and a serving woman.
The unicorn has not heard of any of its kind for a long time, an absence that makes the joys of her forest inadequate. She embarks on a quest for her kin but is captured by Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival. Traveling with the Carnival was a second rate magician, who’d failed his training and could do little more than parlor tricks and sleight of hand, though he had learned all the spells, if he could but remember them. Schmendrick recognizes that the unicorn is no illusion and helps her get free, not by spells but by a little pick-pocketing of keys, and joins her quest.
In the next phase of the journey, they are fallen upon by would-be Robin Hoods, led by Captain Cully. The unicorn escapes, eventually Schmendrick gets free, in part by summoning the real Robin Hood, the first indication he is capable of real magic. He finds Molly Grue standing before the unicorn, both enrapt, and infuriated that it had taken this long for the unicorn to show up in her life. That’s Molly–unfiltered!
The questers learn that whatever happened to the unicorns has to do with the Red Bull, who lives at the base of King Haggard’s castle and periodically roams to round up any remaining unicorns. And so it comes for the last unicorn. The unicorn neither dies nor finds the others. There is yet more story involving a transformation into a woman, a journey through Hagstown, that sad village beneath the castle, a stay in the castle, and a love affair with a prince. But the bull awaits, and only the last unicorn in her true form has any chance of liberating the other unicorns.
The unicorn represents what is really real, and for those who truly see her, they become real as well. The magician discovers what it is to yield to the true magic rather than summon it with spells. Molly departs the would-be “merry men” for a real quest. The prince becomes a hero in his quest for the heart of Amalthea, the unicorn in human form.
But for all this there is the seemingly unconquerable Red Bull and the question of whatever became of the other unicorns. If you haven’t read the story, you will need to go on your own quest! One distinction of Beagle’s writing: you won’t be wandering for a thousand pages. This one finishes in under 300.